Sunday, May 03, 2015

"When I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness"

Emotional exhaustion; physically tired. I didn't expect it to take so much out of me, but it did. I have done it over and over for nearly 24 years, but it still surprises me when I walk away drained to the bone.

It's not bad - don't get me wrong. I have tried very hard to handle the Word of a jealous God to his people and simultaneously be faithful to it, to Him, and to them. And sometimes it takes the energy out of whatever reserves I thought I had. I never seem to sleep well the night before. Sometimes what the Word has to say is full of hope and joy, and sometimes I talk to people who are walking in darkness and pain. In either case, and every case in between,  my mind, body, and heart are left wrung out.

But it is for the good of the church, and of the people of God. At least I tell myself that. Maybe I missed the boat and everyone in the room walked away thinking, "That was nice. What's for lunch?" and I walked away ready for a nap. Maybe a life was stirred by my inevitably inadequate attempt to talk about the One True God and bring people to the foot of the cross or the threshold of an empty tomb. By the grace of God, may it be.

I do it over and over, like mowing my lawn or shoveling my driveway in the middle of a blizzard. There always seems to be a reason to do it again, a need that rises to the surface like a stubborn weed. Or maybe the weekly repetition has caused my words to sound like the ticking of the clock on the wall. It's there, and we know it's there, we just don't hear it anymore. But I tick on. Pastors keep keeping time according to the rhythms and motions of God's kingdom in a realm that listens to different clocks and follows flashier time pieces.

Nonetheless, the Word of God is sharper than any other tool we can use, and by the work of the Spirit of God, makes its way into the deepest recesses of the human soul. Deeper than we can even see within ourselves.


So, I will fitfully sleep, awake grumpy that I tossed and turned too much, but I will get up and go at it again. It is more important than some other, sleep-friendly substitute, and it is what I was called to do. So the fire burns and my bones quake, anticipating the next week.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Links with Little Context

"The Wrong Train" by Andree Seu Peterson, World Mag

Somewhere along the line, Western civilization boarded a train called Secularism and is now running on philosophical fumes. 

"Anne Bradley Reflects on New Zondervan Edition of ‘For the Least of These’"



For the Least of These has helped me learn that this is a matter of stewardship. We don’t get to choose the “how” in how we care for the poor. We have to do it the right way, because lives hang in the balance. 
We can’t just agree to disagree about the best means for caring for the poor. If we do it wrong, two things are going to happen: 
We will waste precious resources, and we can’t do that because we don’t have unlimited resources and thus we must steward them wisely. 
We may end up hurting the very people we are called to help, the people we care for so deeply. 
We know we can’t do that. We have to fight against anything that harms the poor and keeps them in poverty.

"No Differences? How Children in Same-Sex Households Fare (2014)" The Witherspoon Institute


Published in leading, peer-reviewed journals and supplemented by easy-to-read summaries of each academic article, the essays in this volume help clarify crucial points of debate regarding the “no differences” claim, including the weaknesses of the gay-parenting studies affirming the children are doing just fine; the comparative strengths of the academic research that finds the opposite; the actual setbacks children from same-sex homes suffer; and hypotheses as to why the children experience the negative outcomes. Ultimately, the researchers argue that the instability in same-sex parented homes, the loss of one or more biological parents; and the unequal gender distribution of the parents are among the likely channels by which children from these homes suffer harm.

"Does Attending Church Online Count?" by Kevin Ott, Vital Magazine


Some people are zealous for the cyber church movement. They see it as the inevitable future. 
Yes, the social features of virtual church - live chatting, Skyping, not having to wear a tie - can still make meaningful relationships possible. Some virtual churches supplement their online gatherings with in-person events - even mission trips. 
But here's a question: Does it affect the quality of a community when we give preference to cyberspace over physical space - when in-person meetings become an occasional add-on? 
Absolutely. 
After spending the last 15 years in the same church, I will say this: The depth of fellowship I've experienced in that little sanctuary could never be duplicated in a virtual environment.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Pastor - Bearer of Knowledge

"For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts." Malachi 2:7

You believe most of what you believe on the basis of authority. How do you know the history you know? You were not there, but others were and you take them at their word. How do you know the earth revolves around the sun? You can observe a phenomena, but for centuries humans observed the same rising and setting and came to the wrong conclusion. Now, however, you have it on good authority from people who can do the math that you cannot. How do you know the antibiotic you were prescribed by your M.D. will do you any good? She said so.

Ours is an age of experts who acquire knowledge about several crucial specialties, and we place them in high esteem if they have done their job well. We come to them for knowledge we do not have to cure diseases and repair trucks. The average person on the street (including the average church-goer?) does not see pastors as this kind of professional, but according to what God says about his spiritual leaders they are specialists who do the work necessary to acquire and dispense a special kind of knowledge that others do not always have the time to learn themselves. And then it is entirely appropriate for people to come to God's spiritual leaders for that knowledge.

"Knowledge" is not a general, throw-away term, even in Scripture. It refers to a specific kind of reasoned and tested belief that is far more than mere opinion. Everyone has opinions about God, not many have genuine knowledge of him. Knowledge, when someone attains it, puts a person into contact with the way things really are. Opinions are certain kinds of guesses or desires about reality, but knowledge is connection to reality - a relationship between what you believe to be true and what is actually true.

God says his priests - what we might today call pastors - "guard knowledge" with their lips. In other words, they are doing the hard work of gaining true and accurate insight into who God is, and then teaching the same. Ideally, and you might say "strictly speaking," pastors do not dispense opinion, unless they have not done their job well. But if they have, people can listen to them talk about God and his dealings with humanity and gain knowledge about him. This truth about God's spokespeople puts the role of pastor into an interesting and significant light.

Pastors gain and dispense knowledge in ways similar to the traditional and well-known professions of experts. Pastors are not paid opinionators, but are tasked with getting to know God, his Word, the Gospel, and telling people what they know.

Pastors are not at the back of the cultural bus. Culture sure things so, but they are not. Knowledge about how the good life is to be lived is not in the realm of lawyers, politicians, media, and celebrities who do not know God. They all hand out opinions about how it is to be lived, but unless it coheres with God's vision of the good life, it is all balderdash.  

Pastors ought to do the kind of work necessary to make themselves trustworthy bearers of the knowledge of God. The text I quoted from Malachi is in the context of God getting frustrated with priests who did not actually do this. This was their charter, and instead they settled for corruption and they "caused many to stumble by [their] instruction" (Malachi 2:8).


This vision of pastors and spiritual knowledge puts the church right back in the thick of things. Our current culture has dismissed the church as insignificant by defining her out of significance. The church - and the religion she teaches - is private, psychologically helpful pabulum. But nothing could be further from the truth if the pastor and the church do their jobs, gain actual knowledge about God, and hand it out to the world around them.

(You can track my series of posts on The Pastor by following the tag.)

Don't Do Drugs, Kids. Not Even Marijuana.

I recently sat face-to-face with what marijuana does to the human being and it was not pretty. He is a friend, he is young, and he is convinced that all the dope he has smoked is OK because “God created it” and he is in good shape because “it doesn’t control me.” But the conversation was far from normal. The longer the conversation went the more unhinged from reality he became. His fantasies grew with each telling, his outlandish promises took over his sense of what was real and reasonable, and he was hearing and seeing things. He has genuine potential and parents who love him and provide for him, but he has gone a long way toward destroying his future.

Don’t do drugs, kids.

We are told by marijuana advocates, and I speak as a resident of Colorado, that the drug is safe, even medical. We are promised that it can be sold and consumed safely. And we are thrown the economic trump card that all the tax revenues will “go to the children.” But reality is very different from the propaganda. This isn’t the marijuana of the 1960’s and 70’s; this stuff is a serious and dangerous hallucinogen. The research is mounting, and the anecdotal evidence is following suit – this experiment in dope legalization is going to go badly for an entire generation. (This link to Bill Bennett’s book, Going to Pot, contains several links to the recent research on several marijuana related issues.)

I don’t want to recount the research here, but I do want to make some predictions.

Within 10 years, the rates of marijuana-related teen mental disorders will skyrocket. More and more young teens and pre-teens are getting their hands on the stuff right now, and with its increased potency, the kids won’t last long.

On a related note, public school districts and law enforcement agencies will spend an ever-increasing percentage of their budget dealing with pot related problems, causing their "normal" jobs to suffer.

Within 5 years it will become clear that the tax revenue collected by the state will not be enough to cover the state’s costs in handling marijuana-related problems. For example, the costs associated with alcohol far outweigh the taxes brought in by the sales of alcohol.


Within 10 years there will be a serious grassroots movement afoot to repeal the legalization of pot, but it will face a (likely) impossible task. The genie has been let out of the bottle and there may be no putting it back.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Turning a Garden into a City

In our mid-week Study/Pot-luck extraordinaire at Living Hope Church, we have been studying the topic of work, more specifically, the work for which God made us. When you look at Scripture with this topic in mind, there is a rich and varied theology of work from literally the first to the last page of Scripture. One of those "book-end" details is a tree that shows up both at the beginning of the human story and at the end. When God plants the garden he puts in it a Tree of Life. Then humanity is given the responsibility to tend to the garden. Then, at the end of history as we know it, God's children are re-gathered in a city in which is planted, you guessed it, the Tree of Life.

Genesis 2:9 "And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

Revelation 22:2 "...also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

We begin in a garden, are given the task of cultivating it, and we end up in a city. A lot has been said about the significance of this move, but I find it provocative to pull Socrates into the discussion. Biblically speaking, the garden we are given by God is cultivated by the gifts and resources he gave each of us and the resources he embedded in creation. We work, as God's under-creators, and turn his gift into a city, which is from a certain point of view, the collection of a multitude of trades each laboring for the good of the city. This is, basically, how Socrates described the city in Plato's Republic. Each trade is engaged in for the betterment of individuals and families, but also have the larger purpose of building the just city.


Biblically, humans are creative and productive because they are created in the image of a God who is creative and productive. We take the things God provided for us, we employ our gifts and trades for the good of ourselves and our neighbors, and we build a city. And then, finally, when God rules all in all, that city (that collection of human productivity in the virtues of Christ) becomes the perfect city - the City of God.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Self-Destructive Cycle of Self-Infantilization: We're All Babies Now!

Three articles, three separate sets of circumstances, the same problem. The problem is the self-infantilization of our culture, and it will lead to wide-spread and unsavory consequences.

At the National Review Online, Charles Cooke writes about the chilling effect of liberal emovitism in, "The New 'McCarthyism' Exists, but it Has Nothing to Do with Ted Cruz." He cites the case of a Purdue-based doctoral student and teacher named Fredrik deBoer who publicly lamented the state of his students, and thus the state of his teaching.

Fredrik deBoer took to Twitter to rail bitterly against the toxic climate that the advocates of “tolerance” have created on his campus. “Students,” deBoer wrote, are “very quick learners,” and they have realized that they can use our present hysteria to advance their interests. Indeed, far from helping to educate, deBoer added, our current penchant for hyper-sensitivity is having a deleterious effect on the quality of the critical training he is expected to provide. “If you question even the most obviously dishonest and self-interested invocation of trauma/triggering/etc,” deBoer lamented, “you will be criticized severely.”

And then a liberal friend of deBoer's adds her two-cents on the situation.

Writing anonymously on the “White Hot Harlots” blog, a “passionate leftist” friend of deBoer’s painted a disquietingly similar picture. “Saying anything that goes against liberal orthodoxy,” he declared, “is now grounds for a firin’.” Indeed, “even if you make a reasonable and respectful case, if you so much as cause your liberal students a second of complication or doubt you face the risk of demonstrations, public call-outs, and severe professional consequences.”... in fact. “I would not get fired for pissing off a Republican,” our anonymous friend insists. Rather, “liberal students scare the s*** out of me.

These teachers at public universities have come face-to-face with the intellectual climate created by secular progressivism - a climate of reason, free-exchange, and pursuit of the truth has been replaced with violent and threatening displays of emotion.

At the magazine, First Things, Mark Bauerlein writes about how it has become difficult to impossible to interact with this kind of emotivism in, "The Rhetoric of Anti-Discrimination." His article focuses on a briefing by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled, "Examining workplace Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Americans." In it he quotes the transgendered representative at length making it obvious that the only argument offered up in favor of their position was an appeal to emotion. Bauerlein concludes,

What argument can be made against this cry of the heart? Who wants to stand up and deny suffering? The preceding person on the panel spoke against the ENDA revisions by noting mostly the costly and unreasonable litigation that will follow, but you can see how feeble that objection is relative to the pain of these vulnerable souls. So some businesses have to pay a few dollars more—isn’t that worth the healing that will go with it?
 

Given our current cultural climate and the values of equality, diversity, tolerance, and non-judgmentalism, I see no effective answer to these emotional pleas. There are principled answers, yes, but none that pass muster in public settings.

In other words, we have come to a point in our cultural discourse where reason and argumentation are no longer convincing in the public square because they have been effectively replaced with appeals to emotion. What can you say to disagree with how a person feels?

And then thirdly, a now well-known article that was published in the New York Times authored by Judith Shulevitz titled, "In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas." In it, she details a campus group's reaction to a debate about what is allegedly the "rape culture" on campus. This woman's group effectively quashed the debate and erected a safe room where people could go if they heard rhetoric that "invalidated their experience." The organizer of the safe room remarked that she was hurt by hearing people disagree with her deeply held and sincere beliefs. The author analyzes the situation well and cites what I think is a perfect moniker for this trend - "self-infantilization." She writes,

Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.
 

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity,” he wrote. But “if college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”

Examples of this new cultural reality could be produced ad-infinitum, ad-nauseam from the arenas of academia, government, politics, entertainment, and the media. For a long time people have lamented the rise of the power of the appeal to emotion in politics, and certainly that is a common problem, but this is different. This is systemic. This is engendered by, and I would say made necessary by, secular progressivism, and today the culture-shapers have themselves been shaped by this brand of emotivism and lack the intellectual tools to make any other appeal.

So, how did this happen?

For my thesis in graduate school I chose to read the collected works of Richard Rorty who was at the time the leading American philosophical proponent of what was then called postmodernism. People still use the term, but is has been made gauche by those who are its disciples. (That happens when an idea is so bad that its disciples refuse to give up the worldview but deny the title, as if changing the label will remove the stain.) Postmodernism had its roots in a philosophy that proclaimed suspicion of all truth claims. Rorty once infamously declared that "truth is what my colleagues let me get away with." It was argued that appeals to truth failed and did not do justice to how various cultures viewed the world and taught their children how to live. Then postmodernism took another step and went from suspicion of truth to the belief that any appeal to truth was an act of power over another human being, and thus our modern notion of "tolerance" was born. To be tolerant, in this new postmodern world, was to avoid making truth claims or judgment claims of others, and those who did were labeled intolerant.

This is a terrible view of tolerance. In reality, tolerance is reserved for those with whom you disagree. In this new view of tolerance, it is reserved only for those who agree with you, and those who disagree are labeled as intolerant. And being labeled intolerant is now the worst thing that can be said about  a person.  It is a terrible definition, but it has won the day. The catch with this view is that it was destined for self-destruction the day it became cultural cache. It rejects reality, grounds any concept of "truth," "good," or "right," in personal preferences, and raises emotion to the highest level of public discourse. As a result we have, in more ways than one, lost our minds and replaced them with our tear ducts. And moving forward, all we need is the next set of whiners to make their case and make it louder than the last group of whiners, and the definition of what is socially acceptable will change. The whole worldview is a self-collapsing cycle of public protests and threats of litigation.

Postmodernism ironically reduced itself to appeals to power, and over time has further reduced itself to appeals to emotional power. When truth beyond your preferences is gone, the only way to get your way is to exercise power over other human beings. Argument is gone, power reigns. And this is the very core of the secular progressive worldview, which is why I argue that the reduction of all human interaction to power and emotion is a necessary consequence of this way of seeing things. This also explains why secular progressives accuse everyone else of making power-plays to get their way - it is projection pure and simple. They have no argument, by virtue of their postmodern worldview, so they sling emotion and hope it sticks.

For the young mind, the result is exactly what our three authors noted. The uniquely human capacity for reason and reflection is diminished in favor of emotion coddling. More and more, older children are unable to make the crucial distinction between what reality really is like (for example, other smart people disagree with you and deserve to be heard) from their sincerely held beliefs (leading to climate where dissenting points of view are labeled as "hate" or "intolerance").

This leads to what is now the new fundamentalism. More on that later.

For now it will suffice to say that Christians ought to have nothing to do with this rampant self-infantilization. Christians are people of truth, not propaganda. Christians are people of self-sacrificing love, not coercive hate. Christians are unafraid of other points of view, for all truth is God's truth. Christians are people who are being built and matured in the image of Christ and in the kingdom of God, not letting themselves get stuck in the early Freudian stages of infant development.


In addition, Christians are people of hope. There really is a powerful and redemptive truth out there than can change a life and free it from its childish shackles.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What I See As A Pastor

I had a chance to show someone today "what I see" when I look over a congregation as a pastor.

A young man has been walking to church for a few weeks and he stopped by today in bad shape. Life is hard for him and he is baffled about where God is and whether he is paying any attention. A couple of us had a chance to talk with him and pray with him, but I have to tell you, these conversations are often very hard to get through. It is a common truth that life is often very hard, and most every Christian will experience seasons when they believe God is absent, and despair.

At one point he mentioned what he sees when he walks in the doors of our church. He sees people with smiling faces and happy children. He sees people who love God. He sees people raising their hands in worship. He sees people who feel the presence of God, and he keeps coming back because he feels the presence of God here as well. He wants what they have.

So I took him into the sanctuary, we walked down to the front, turned around, and I showed him a little of what I see every Sunday. I also see people happy to be with the family of God and who worship with all they have each week. I also see beautiful families, and I revel in the sounds of children racing through the halls, hugging their parents, and carrying around whatever craft they glued and colored that morning. I even get to hold a few of them.

I also see the saint who is twice widowed but who pours her life into her brothers and sisters in Christ. I see the families dealing with severe mental and physical disabilities who bring their kids and family members because worship soothes them. I see teens and young adults who have lost parents at an all too early age, but who come and find friendship and strength in church. I see blended families following God but who struggle with the rotten choices of their other family members. I see parents with wayward children who struggle in prayer constantly. I see single parents doing their dead-level best. And the story goes on, and on.


To my eyes, this is part of what makes church so beautiful. It isn't the perfection. It is more the quality of the mercy and grace of God alive in imperfect and hurting lives. It is the beauty of lumps of coal being turned into diamonds by the power of a loving and nail-scarred God. It is the cross leading to resurrection.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Disciple and Happiness

There is a line in Pride and Prejudice in which one sister tells another, and I am paraphrasing here, that she cannot have her happiness until she has her goodness.  Jane Austen is relying on a traditional sense of happiness (and goodness) to make her point that virtue is the path to true happiness. For a very long time philosophers and theologians believed that humans were made to be certain kinds of beings, namely rational and virtuous beings, and that we would not lead fulfilling lives until we began to function according to our created mandate. Thus, happiness was to be a consequence of reason and virtue. This idea, which reigned philosophy and culture for centuries, has fallen apart and been replaced with one form of hedonism or another. Happiness now is a factor of what makes us feel a particular emotion without any regard to virtue or the right training of character. In fact most people now find the idea, "the right training of character," to be odd or offensive.

But for the follower of Jesus Christ, we must return to a version of this traditional notion. Moreland and Issler say, "According to the ancients [Moses, Solomon, Jesus, Aristotle, Plato, and the church], happiness is a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness" (The Lost Virtue of Happiness, pg. 25, italics theirs). The way I want to put it here is that in the life of the believer happiness is the place where there is no tension between what gives God joy and what gives you joy.

For the Christian, maturity consists in the building of the life and character of God within us. As the Apostle Paul noted, we have been predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It is a beautiful and powerful thing. It is a joyful thing. But it presupposes that we currently, or in our broken human condition, are not in the image of God (Romans 8:29). We must be transformed to get there. Thus, the things that give us joy or happiness now may need to change and the things that give God joy must replace them in the makeup of our character.

So, at the very least, the Christian needs to learn that they cannot accept happiness on hedonistic terms, or to settle for the kind of joy that comes with a broken and sinful nature. As C.S. Lewis said in another context, if we do those things we are happy with playing in the mud when the glories of heaven are available to us. The Christian is given the Word of God, the life of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and these become our guides in learning God's kind of happiness and joy, and they become the power of our transformation.